All photos me too, copyrighted
Even though light aircraft had remained faithful to Croatian airports all throughout the corona crisis – so there was always something to see wherever you went – the recent and quite sudden upsurge in tourist traffic had brought them back in numbers unseen even in record-setting 2019. From Pula (PUY/LDPL) at the top of the coast to Dubrovnik (DBV/LDDU) at its bottom, throughout July 2021 I was spoiled for choice on any GA apron, and more than once did not know where to actually start photographing (a #firstworldproblem if there ever was one). Homebuilts… turboprops… bizjets… touring… STOL… medevac… everywhere you went there was always something for any taste.
I, however, decided to indulge in a particular fascination with piston twins (a summer fling?), of which there were so many that I could easily devote an entire article to them – and, in fact, am doing right now. And while just a handful of them could be considered truly rare and interesting – even by Croatian standards – they should nevertheless make for a fun read for any GA nut!
1. Piper PA-44-180 Seminole • F-GBPK
The first machine off the line may be the most common of the lot – but for reasons I can’t quite explain, I have a soft spot for Seminoles, particularly mint and sweet examples such as this one (though my colleagues were quick to point out that “sweet Seminole” is like saying “enjoyable tropical disease”).
Manufactured in 1979 under the serial 44-7994308, F-GBPK is seen here roasting at Split Airport (SPU/LDSP) after completing stage 2 of an epic trans-mediterranean journey that will see it cover everything from France to Croatia to Greece to Morocco to the Azores, before legging it back home across the entire width of the Iberian peninsula*. Having previously flown for the Aeralp flight school of Grenoble, F-GBPK sports a comprehensive avionics setup, including the Garmin G500 glass cockpit system, twin Garmin GNS430 moving-map GPS units, a King KRA10 radio altimeter, and a full suite of backup analogue IFR instruments – all of which makes for far more relaxing long-range flight!
* as originally planned, the whole itinerary reads: Grenoble (LFLS) – Bologna (LIPE) – Split – Ioannina (LGIO) – Heraklion (LGIR) – Megara (LGMG) – Kefalonia (LGKF) – Valletta (LMML) – Pantelleria (LICG) – Palermo (LICJ) – Olbia (LIEO) – Menorca (LEMH) – Malaga (LESB) – Fes (GMFF) – Agadir (GMAD) – Lanzarote (GCRR) – Tenerife Nord (GCXO) – Madeira (LPMA) – Cascais (LPCS) – Biarritz (LFBZ) and then home. At the time of writing, the aircraft had reached Tenerife, roughly 3/5ths of the way in (with a tech stop on Corsica for some maintenance)
2. Piper PA-34-200 Seneca • F-BTMH
No. 2 on the list is another “Frenchie Piper” – but this time one considerably rarer than the Seminole. Even before you look at its serial 34-7250135 – which denotes it as the 135th PA-34 made in 1972 – you’ll note the square windows, the square engine nacelles and the two-bladed props, and immediately recognize it as The Daddy: the first ever Seneca model to go into series production…
As the only Seneca variant to be powered by naturally aspirated engines (Lycoming IO-360s with 200 HP apiece), and sporting a limited payload of just 1,356 lbs | 615 kg (of which 590 lbs | 260 kg is fuel with full tanks), this model was neither overly efficient nor a spirited performer, particularly when on the heavy side and at high ambient temperatures. Quickly surpassed by the more capable turbocharged Seneca II and then the 220 HP Seneca III, the original has nowadays found its niche in the world of flight training, where loads (usually just a student + instructor) are never such that its lack of performance becomes an issue… even on only one engine. Cheap to buy, often with comprehensive avionics setups and big & complex enough to give the student an idea of what it’s actually like to handle an airliner, they can be a realistic alternative to Seminoles and Beech Duchesses, with F-BTMH itself flying in that role with the Sky Explorer flight school of Aix-en-Provence.
To make it even better, it is also only the third of its type I’ve ever seen, alongside the even older YL-ATB and Croatia’s own 9A-LEM. Ironically, given my fascination with it, I now have more photos of the rarest Seneca mark than I do of the common-as-trees Seneca III or the still-in-production Seneca V!
3. Beech 58P Pressurized Baron • N333RF
Third plane’s the charm however – not only for being my first Pressurized Baron, but also for being the only pre-G58 model I’ve ever seen in the metal (Barons of any sort are a pretty rare sight over here in SE Europe)…
The most advanced evolution of Beech’s hard-to-kill twin, the 58P was part of a double act with the unpressurized 58TC, both of which were intended to bolster the type’s sales prospects in the face of new designs from Cessna and Piper. Conceived in early 1973, the 58P ended up being the “marketing department’s airplane”, since it was pushed into development over the objections of the company’s engineering circles, who felt that Beech already had a perfectly adequate high-performance pressurized six-seater – the stunning model 60 Duke. Whats more, at the time the Duke was still holding its own against the only realistic competitor in this segment – Cessna’s 421 Golden Eagle – so it was felt that a pressurized Baron would just undercut the Duke’s sales for no tangible gain. However, strongly positive feedback from sales personnel across the US eventually prevailed, and work soon started on turning the already capable 58 into a Mini Me Duke.
Flying for the first time on 16 August 1973 in the form of a development prototype, the new 58P – as certified in 1974 – was powered by twin Continental TSIO-540-L engines developing 310 HP, whose massive turbochargers could supply enough high pressure air to give a 25,000 ft ceiling, power the pneumatic de-ice boots on the wing and horizontal stabilizer AND pressurize the cabin to a maximum 3.7 psi cabin differential. At the type’s usual cruising altitude of 18,000 ft, the latter translated into a very comfortable 7,700 ft cabin altitude (round about what you get on most airliners) – or a tolerable 11,900 ft at the 25,000 ft ceiling.
At this maximum altitude, the 58P could do 213 kts | 394 km/h in high speed cruise, which doesn’t sound all that impressive compared to the 200 kts | 370 km/h of the stock 58 – and on the original 285 HP engines to boot, well before the 1984 upgrade to 300. However, the stock model achieved this at a pretty low 7,000 ft, well below many safe altitudes in the Western US and Alpine Europe. So, despite objectively being some 75-80% of the way to the bigger and more comfortable Duke, as it went on sale in 1976, the 58P sold 83 examples in the first year alone – not a big number on its own, but quite a success for that market segment.
Meanwhile, as test flying and certification were being wrapped up, Beech executives realized that they could use the work done on the 58P to try and break into another niche: unpressurized twins, where Cessna’s 401/402/411 and the Piper Turbo Aztec had cornered the market. To this end, they created the 58TC, which was in essence a standard 58 fuselage and wings mated to the complete engine installation of the 58P, rather than being a 58P with the pressurization system removed (so it retained the right side cabin door). The only other major difference to the standard model were equipment levels; since the 58TC could fly far higher than the stock 58P, it was equipped as standard with the de-icing system, and sported more cabin amenities and an extended IFR cockpit setup. Long range fuel tanks were also a very common option, to cater for the TSIO-520’s higher thirst.
In 1979, both the P and TC received an engine upgrade, swapping the original L model engine for the more potent TSIO-520-WB, now developing 325 HP. The upgrade also saw the P’s maximum pressure differential increase to 3.9 psi, and the top speed to jump slightly up to 216 kts | 400 km/h.
Given the number of unpressurized turbocharged twin types still flying today – Senecas, Cessna T303s, Turbo Aztecs and the like – one would have expected that the 58TC would also be a sales success. Despite being considerably cheaper, less complicated to operate and easier to maintain than the P, the TC was a complete flop, with just 151 sold before production stopped in 1982. While it was easier to live with, it was still more expensive to buy and fuel than its rivals, and despite having roughly the same performance as the P, it did not provide the same level of passenger comfort. As a consequence, the P would outsell it nearly three-to-one, with 495 built by the time production ended in 1986 during the big GA slump.
N333RF itself is an early 1977 example sporting the serial TJ-92, which says it is the 92nd P-Baron made (prototypes included). A quick search online revealed that it had been put on sale in the States back in mid-2020, and the fact that it has found its way to Dubrovnik means it has likely found a new home somewhere in Europe…
4. Cessna 414 RAM VI • N414SB
Compared to the 58P, the final aircraft for today was a far bigger sales success, with some 1,070 sold… but many people will still struggle trying to identify it. One of the many designs churned out by Cessna during its 60s and 70s market fight with Piper and Beech, the 414 is essentially a quick-and-cheap mishmash of parts from the earlier models 401 and 425, and was primarily intended to take over the Golden Eagle’s job of keeping the Beech Duke in check.
Though it would eventually win and by quite a margin – outselling the Duke’s 596 by almost two-to-one – its lackluster looks and unglamorous origins had quickly made it fall behind the sofa of public consciousness. This, however, does not mean it was a bad aircraft; on the contrary, it would prove to be as tough, capable and long-lived as the 58P, and would in later years become a favorite for third-party upgrades.
N414SB itself – of 1970 vintage & serialled 414-0092 – thus sports the RAM Series VI mod, which sees the original Continental TSIO-520-J engines of 310 HP replaced by TSIO-520-NB units developing a more meaty 335 HP. Apart from a 10-15 knot bump in cruising speeds (depending on the regime), the upgrade also includes a 415 lbs | 188 kg increase in payload – and, despite the added mass, an increase in climb speeds from 1,580 to 1,900 FPM on both engines, and 240 to 310 on just the one.